Ol’ Will said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Perhaps all the world’s a safari, and we’re either the hunter or the hunted.
Ever been to a writers meeting? Belong to a writers group? Attended a critique at a writers retreat? Ever present your work for others to rip apart?
If so, brave you!
Writers can encourage one another, help one another, or we can turn on the weak, the wounded, even the strong, and attack them as if we were piranha and they were the blood-rich flesh in the water.
Like any other group (actors, politicians, the local PTA), we writers have our personalities and pettiness: people who squash others on the way to the top; people who have all the talent but are too timid to use it; people who hone their skills and step boldly into the light — only to get shot down because now the enemy can see them.
So, why bother? Why put our work out there for the world to annihilate? Isn’t that a lot like putting an infant in front of a tiger? Perhaps.
But why not live dangerously? After all, if the hero has nothing to fight against, has nothing to overcome, what’s the point?
We can take all the writing classes available, read all the books we can, but until we write, we are not writers. Until we let someone read our work, how will we ever know how strong we are, as people and as writers?
I remember the first critique my writing ever received, and it wasn’t pretty. I had to read a story in front of the class, and I was the only one laughing at the jokes. I was a determined 10-year-old, however, and I was not going to quit just ’cause some unimaginative fifth-graders didn’t like my story. So there! Receiving honest feedback was not something I did well.
Even now, decades later, critiques can still sting. I may not like the fact that a story has weaknesses, but a true friend will point out those weaknesses so they may be corrected. Like iodine to a wound, it may hurt but it is only meant for good.
But beware frustrated writers who suspect everyone else is better than they are. These writers are rarely happy for anyone else’s successes. They carry verbal elephant guns loaded with enough ammunition to take down entire herds of ideas.
BANG! They don’t like the style.
BANG! They hate the setting.
BANG! The subject is boring.
BANG! They’ve never liked that genre.
Nothing pleases them, they have little or nothing useful to offer, and they leave carnage in their wake. I’ve seen talented writers fall prey to their traps and never rise again.
When you do decide to set off into the wilds in search of the elusive critique partner perfect for you, wear a pith helmet sturdy enough to keep your thoughts encouraged, slather on enough sunblock to protect you from scathing words, and carry clear-lensed binoculars calibrated to let you see the truth in spite of all the verbiage. Wisdom comes with time; there will be pitfalls on the path, and you will suffer injury sometimes, but you won’t find the help you need if you never venture out of the Land Rover.
The best stories are born of adversity.
Crazy how we need to take our own advice. In my former writing group, I really needed to be reminded of this. One writer was working on her next manuscript, and although everyone else brought new material in need of a critique or a polish, she absorbed most of the attention. I stopped bringing anything for the group to read, because they didn’t “do” fantasy or science fiction.
However, I do have a small circle of readers — friends and family — who give honest feedback. Took me a while to train ’em to not be so delicate, but we have a pretty good give-and-take now, and they catch a lot of my errors, for which I am grateful beyond words.
The above was posted several years ago on a different blog. I revised and updated it for this site, and below are a few responses from fellow writers to that original version. Their remarks add to the discussion, and might be of use to the readers today.
DP — “I don’t know what to say. I am at a loss for words. I have a full bottle of Iodine and nothing to pour it on. I now reflect on how upset I got at some of those critique groups who couldn’t see the genius in my verbiage, and realize after re-reading it after a long hiatus how right they were. Very salient post.”
AF — “I get this totally, on several levels. I’ve been a part of far too many writer’s groups filled with people who rarely get any writing done, that or as you say, the “writers” critique with no idea what they’re talking abou…so why do I go? Well the short answer is, I don’t anymore. Like you, I have a few friends that I trust, who read my stuff, and we have an agreement that I’ll read theirs as well…and we go on that a’ way. Works much better than listening to people talk about what they want to write (though they never actual get anything on paper) and then trusting that lot with my manuscripts? No way…”
KB — “I’ve considered ditching any form of round-table-style group,but I can’t seem to totally absent myself from the one to which I’ve belonged for several years. I like these people, but it’s frustrating that they’re more than happy to take my help but won’t give time to my work.
“As for people talking about what they’re going to write, but producing little in the way of actual writing, I’ve been in those groups, too, and had the same reaction: Why put my hard work in the hands of people who won’t do the hard work themselves?”
At 99 cents, Elements of Plot is certainly reasonable, and the material inside is concise, valuable, and fun to read.
First in a projected series (“Writing Your Novel YOUR Way”), Elements of Plot includes a variety of methods to plotting/outlining your novel. It is very readable and well-written–35 pages, so it’s compact– and full of good advice without trying to impose “the” way to approach novel-writing.
Reading books on writing, though useful in many ways, can simply add to the confusion. I’ve read more than fifty of them and if I include articles in Writer’s Digest, The Writer, on blogs and websites, I probably read the equivalent of another fifty or one hundred books in the forty-five years since I first decided I wanted to write things other people would read.
I’ve learned from each of them. Many of them have also confused me. One book was all about plotting and the “proper” way to do that. Another I read, said “plot is an illusion.” According to that author, plot is merely “the accumulated actions the character takes in resolving a problem.” Hmmm… Sounds like a plot to me.
Most require very long and very detailed plot outlines, although the nature of those plot outlines varies greatly. Some look like snowflakes, some like wagon wheels, some are meandering paths, some are written on cards and shuffled, some are pages in a notebook.
Each author has his “one-and-only” way to write an outline.
If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve run into these one-and-only-way types who just know how a story is supposed to be told. I’ve encountered some recently in a debate over the necessity or usefulness of prologues and epilogues, but that’s a story for another day.
I’m an educator first. One thing we know about education is that different people learn in different ways. The same is true of writing. When I teach magazine writing, I give students six methods of “outlining’ an article. None of which your English teacher told you about. So, I’m very big on adapting to a person’s individual style and helping them optimize that style.
I’ve got a book in outline form right now I’m calling “Noveling by the Seat of your Pants.” No one I can see has written one from that perspective. The big misconception (even among Pantsers) is that they don’t create a plot outline. They do. The plot outline is their first draft. Instead of trying to imagine where the story is going to go and writing down notes, scratching out a line in an outline, and moving around summaries of scenes. They do that with paragraphs and pages.
So, that’s my next big writing book project. This month I’m working on getting a sequel out for another novel.
1. What inspired the series?
Actually, I bought a book on novel writing authored by a woman who taught a class for a major reputable writing school. I started reading it and she was speaking very “authoritatively” about the way to plot a novel. It was a very detailed method planning out every nuance of every scene in every chapter before you began to write anything. Then she said something to the effect that people who don’t do this type of planning simply will not ever be successful writing their novels. They will fail. So, that made me curious about her track record. I looked her up and discovered that aside from the book on novel writing, she had only published a couple of short stories and an article for a literary magazine. She had never actually published a novel.
It started me thinking about the successful authors I knew. Some did do detailed planning, like this author advised. Others made a sort of overview and then filled in the rest as they wrote. Still others “write by the seat of the pants.” As an educator (I spent 30 years teaching college), I already knew different people learn differently. It only made sense that they would approach writing differently as well. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t improve, but that improvement needed to take account of their methodology.
Yet, every book and school out there took the same approach. There was one and only way to write a novel – MY WAY! So, people would grab a hold of one of these methods, and they worked for some, but most got burned out because they were using another person’s tool and not their own. Also, I found that none of the books even recognized that you could write a novel without making detailed plot outlines (of course, only using their method.) So, I wrote a few limited blog posts about the three methods and later expanded it into a short course and then a book.
2. How many books do you think will be included?
I currently have books planned on the following:
Character Development (Character dossiers are fine, but not for everyone. Why not interview a character or discover her as you write?) World Making (Creating the “world” in which your story takes place) First drafts, Editing and Revision (Product creation)
And one I am just now beginning to consider adding is Publishing and Marketing YOUR Way. At one time there was really only one way to get that novel published. Find a publisher or agent and hope your novel made its way through the slush pile. That’s still one way, but we have so many others as well. You can go to small traditional publishers who may only publish a few volumes a year, but can give each author a lot of attention.
There are some writer’s collaboratives springing up which share the costs of publishing and marketing, but otherwise run the collaborative like a publisher with standards for publication, etc. Then you can go the self-publishing route and get out a print book on Amazon for as little at $20 and have it distributed to other online sellers for under $100. Or you can go digital and publish ebooks on Kindle, Nook, iPad, Sony and a bunch of other places essentially for free. Each of these has challenges and advantages.
Also a lot of the old rules no longer apply. Self published books in the past simply could not be sold unless you were, say a traveling speaker and sold them after the meetings. Bookstores wouldn’t carry them. But with Amazon carrying just about anything that has been published, you don’t have to worry about the local Mom and Pop not having your book.
I’ve published traditionally with a small publisher and I’ve self published. And honestly, the “respect” that followed traditional publishing helped me get some reviews, but not really a lot of sales. But then, if I want to publish with the Big Houses someday, self-pubbing now might spoil those possibilities. Also some people simply do not have the personality to self-pub. You are in charge of everything. Some of us like that, but others prefer to “just write.”
So, again, there is no one-size fits all approach.
Sounds good to this independent writer!
If you’re interested in any of Main’s other work, here are links to her previous books:
Ever experience a writing desert, when all your words evaporate under the glare of reality, depression, insecurity, fear?
I hate fear. It tells me nonsense–“You’re nothing. You can’t write. You speak what no one wants to hear, and write what no one wants to read. You’re a failure.”
Yes, I have failed. Many times. And many times have I faced opposition and conflict, sometimes of my own making, but sometimes the making of others.
Ever been disliked simply because you exist? There was a time, about ten years ago or so, when this verse sustained me:
Do not gloat over me, my enemies! For though I fall, I will rise again. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. -Micah 7:8 (New Living Translation)
An avid, voracious reader ever since my entertainment-oriented five-year-old brain was forced into learning by parents who weren’t afraid of educating me outside the classroom, as an adult I’ve read less and less. There was a time when a stack of books checked out from the library on Saturday might sustain me until, oh, say, Wednesday. Now, however, with the increase in editing work and other life matters, books have been set aside. I’ve even committed the horrific act of halving my library.
Reading for pleasure has become almost impossible. My internal editor must be quieted, and my wide-eyed reader must be set free. It’s not always easy to keep one distracted while the other plays.
And then there’s the dreamy writer, whose far-away thoughts and unfocused gaze too often is overtaken by the sharpish editor, and creativity stunted by protests of correctness or authenticity.
I hate fear.
I said that already. Well, I’ll say it again.
I hate fear.
It represses accomplishment and ingenuity, quashes free thought and individuality, diverts excellence into monotony. Nothing can shine or rise or be different, because anything beyond ordinary attracts attention, and with attention comes attack.
Perhaps that’s why some creators fear success. With success comes criticism. Perhaps they only want praise.
Wouldn’t praise be great? But with accolades often comes apathy, the sense of arrival, ultimate achievement.
So, I’ll take a little praise to keep me encouraged, a little criticism to keep me motivated toward improvement, and a lot of courage to keep slogging–nay, striding–through the desert until the words rain down once more and soak into the hard, cracked soil of neglected imagination.
“Same to you, Selly.” He laughs at the familiar nickname as I step off the dock. “Sleep well.”
Goodbye, cruel world!
In truth, the narrator wasn’t stepping off into the lake, but stepping from the wooden dock onto the grassy lawn, and therefore I could easily fix the sentence to make it say what the author intended.
Writers, never assume readers can see the movie in your head.
Although there are assumptions we can make–when people stand, they stand up, for instance; when they sit, they sit down–there are times when specificity is the key to clear, solid writing.
In the case of the example listed above, the author simply needed to tell us this: “I step off the deck into the grass.” Three simple words, and we know the narrator didn’t suddenly go off the deep end. (Groan if you must! :))
By the way, there are instances when characters might stand down or sit up, and then stand or sit need further specification. Otherwise, leave them alone.
The conversation began October 9: “What would be your charges for editing 300 page ms?”
Seems like a simple answer would be in order, right? Just quote a figure and wait for his reply.
But the cost depends on what kind of editing the potential client might need, and whether or not we’d work well together, and–to be honest–whether or not I want to expend much energy on his manuscript. After all, I have to like the story, too, if I’m going to spend weeks or months helping an author prepare a novel for publication.
So, I asked a question or two in return, and included a list of services and fees.
A couple days later, he asked for that information again. I sent it.
Four days after that, he told me a little about himself–he’d spent several years as an editor, too–and then asked for a break on the fees. He also asked (“since you live in Vancouver”) if I’d read an article he’d written.
I don’t live in Canada.
Let’s do this: send your first five pages — or any set of five consecutive pages, the rougher the better — and I’ll provide edits for free, which is a courtesy for new clients.
Then we can evaluate one another, and decide if we’ll be a good team.
Not only do I freelance as an editor, but I currently work for a publishing company, so I’m almost always working on a project for someone else, in addition to producing my own writing. If you need a quick turnaround (within a month, for instance), I may not be the editor you need. However, if you have a couple of months, I can accept the assignment.
…If we decide to work together, I’ll propose a flat fee for the manuscript then. Sound good?
If we decided to work together. If.
Another couple of days, he sent his five pages, I edited and returned them, and all seemed well with the world.
The potential client:
Thanks for sending a sample edit and your comments. Where do we go from here?
He asked questions about the editing process and, once more, inquired about the fees.
In answer to your question about changes: Sometimes I make changes directly in the text, but the author always sees those changes and can make his own revisions or leave things the same. As for the comments in the margins, I use those to explain why I made a change, or why an author should consider a change.
…As for the fee, I must be honest: It’s probably going to be expensive. I’ll consider dropping the…rate down to $__/page, but that’s still a hefty price.
…Are you sure you want to pay for an editor at this stage…?
…I’d like to find out whether or not we’ll work well together. To that end, there’s a questionnaire…(By asking these questions, I get to know you as a person and as an author, and am more able to make an informed decision.
A month passed. I moved on to other projects.
Then the author responded, only halfway answering vital questions, which I re-asked. Turns out, what I thought was a novel was actually autobiographical material recounting the author’s experiences as an immigrant to Canada from India. Caught my interest, but from what I’d read of the manuscript, the story needed shaping.
So I made further suggestions for the author to consider, including the notion that he might consider beta readers (colleagues, friends) who could provide feedback on the book at no cost to him. After all, he seemed concerned about the cost of a professional edit, and readers can be the best editors, in that they know what they like and what they don’t. Honest, detailed feedback from beta readers can be an author’s goldmine.
I am sending you synopsis of my ms which answers most of your questions. The ms i complete and ready to be sent. I have been a copy editor with newspapers so I am hoping my ms will not need much editing. However, I would welcome critique of the story/ structure etc.
Would you be inclined to do a sample edit? Plse advise.
Journalistic writing is different from fiction in goal and structure: one conveys information first then story, while one focuses on story while interspersing information as necessary. These are generalities, of course–sometimes journalism can read like fiction, and sometimes a novel can use the form of journalism to tell its story.
Still, simply because one is experienced at one type of writing does not mean one is prepared for the other. In this case, the author needed an editor to help shape the material into a coherent, smooth story rather than just a list of facts and events.
I did a sample edit back in October (document attached), but if you want a critique (…evaluation of story, structure, etc.), go ahead and send along the whole manuscript.
…FYI: I will be working on two existing projects, as well, so if you have a deadline, please let me know so I can adjust my schedule accordingly.
If this response sounds clipped, it is. I was annoyed at the circular conversation, at the covering of old ground and the lack of forward motion.
Again, he asked:
Can you please give me a ball park figure so I know if your charges are within my budget?
Me, setting aside the niceties and being blunt, and doing a bit of repetition of my own, though still with the author’s good in mind as I typed the reply:
Today, you sent a request concerning my cost to work on your manuscript; below is a message I sent about a week ago, quoting $__/page for a critique. An in-depth content or storytelling edit would be $__/page.
…We keep circling the same topics/questions, which seems to indicate neither of us is ready to tackle this project beyond where it is now. My price is very likely outside your preferred range, which perhaps makes you reluctant to proceed, and I am currently contracted to edit two manuscripts for a publisher as well as produce my own writing, so am not able to take on an in-depth editing until well after the New Year.
For free (or almost free) editing, nothing beats beta readers you can trust to give you honest feedback on your work. You’ll have to do the editing/revisions yourself, and maybe pay for coffee or lunch for the readers as you discuss the book, but it’s worth it.
Thank you for your insensitive and rude response. For your info, I have been a copy editor on daily newspapers in Canada so i resent your rude and patronizing remarks.
Since you are so busy, I’ll look for someone else who knows how to treat clients with respect and work with them, not against them.
We must have communicated at cross purposes, because I did not intend any rudeness in my response.
I do have copies of all of our correspondence. We have circled the same topics on more than one occasion, and I have answered the same questions more than once, which tells me that we are not communicating. That is simply a statement of fact; it is not intended as rudeness.
Just as you have worked many years as a copy editor, I have worked many years as a writer and editor. This isn’t my first rodeo.
I’m sorry that you are not satisfied with this process, but this just lets us both know we likely would not have been a good fit as a writer/editor team.
I wish you well in your future endeavors.
Only one other time has an author attacked like that, and it was about ten years ago, when an elderly writer whom I did not know scolded me over the phone for not responding to his e-mails. (I never received them.)
As someone pointed out regarding the current author, though, I may have experienced a cultural gender clash. This is only speculation, but he may have expected me to slash my fees because bartering is an acceptable part of purchasing goods or services, and I should have done whatever it took to get the job. (Bartering’s okay with me, but I also have a bottom line.) Also, as a woman, I should have shown more deference to a man.
The communication process was a preview of what I would likely encounter during the editing: he might not actually read what I wrote, would ignore my suggestions, or not even consider looking at his work from a different angle. He might keep pushing me to negotiate this or that. We would go ’round and ’round the same topics, making little or no progress.
Not my idea of fun, nor of a good way to make a paycheck.
In this case, who knows if I would actually have been paid once I performed the work?
Simply because one hangs out a shingle advertising one’s expertise, and a potential client approaches, does not mean one is obligated to accept the commission. There is more than money to consider when making a decision.
So, I unwittingly started a kerfuffle when I posted my response to a literary discussion concerning the “rules” for prologues.
And, since I didn’t toe the expected line, someone presented me with a bit of a finger-wagging scold.
Scold away, I say!
Here’s what the fuss was about:
A gentleman posted a topic for discussion, and in his post he stated, “(S)ome people have made comments about prologues in novels that surprised me. It seems that different people have different views on them and their purpose. Not all novels need a prologue. But for those that have them, to my mind, a prologue is a teaser.”
Then he presented a list of what a prologue should or should not be, and ended with the question, “Agree/disagree?”
Some folks agreed with the list of rules, some took exception to a point or two, and one gentleman gave this response:
A good subject to raise in view of the various opinions expressed elsewhere…True, prologues are often short, but I don’t think the length matters too much so long as the piece is well-written…Prologues seem to fit into some works more than others. Have a look at Ken Follett’s “The small boys came early for the hanging etc” in his prologue to The Pillars of the Earth. If you don’t read it you miss a heck of a lot; it both teases and foreshadows and, in my view anyway, is necessary.
Follett’s sequel World Without End doesn’t have a prologue. I found it interesting to compare his techniques.
Logical, with some backup material to support his remarks.
Then I waded in.
I’m leery of rules. And I’m especially leery of rules that are based on a particular writer’s (or group of writers) preferences.
Although there are some painfully bad prologues in this world, there are many that exhibit fine examples of condensed storytelling.
A prologue isn’t always necessary, true, but if it’s there, it needs to carry storytelling weight. It can reveal history, it can tease future events, it can be a scene that doesn’t fit neatly into the main body of the text, but it must, must, must add to the story.
Arbitrary rules go out the window if they exist at the expense of story.
(R)ules…develop in response to trends & needs, & to avoid chaos. They help prevent newcomers from reinventing the wheel.
The list that started this thread is open for debate – thus the purpose of this thread, so they may or may not represent generally accepted rules.
The “rule” I live by is “you gotta know the rules to break them” (& to know if/when/how/why to break them).
Before breaking them or deeming them arbitrary, it deserves our attention to know if they really are rules, & why they exist.
Before passing judgment on whether rules ought be broken, I think we’re just establishing what basic rules exist in the fiction world re: prologues. Whether to follow them is another matter.
I’m all for knowing the rules. After all, they exist for a reason. My objection in this case is notion that prologues have rules.
There are writers who abhor them and writers who love them; writers with poor prologue execution, and writers whose prologues are poetry or exquisite short stories. Prologues are short, long, back story, future action, teasers, packed with information, and so on. Prologues are as different as the writers who write them.
Who or what is the arbiter of the prologue rules? Is there one? Why must a prologue (or an epilogue, for that matter) be subject to rules, outside of helping to tell the story?
Just as in other areas of life, there are bandwagon issues in literary circles: “never use an adverb” or “never use flashbacks”, and so on.
These “rules” are often preferences, not grammatical or mechanical necessities, or storytelling must-haves.
And though I can advocate for knowing the rules in order to break them well, I still argue that the prologue issue (should a story ever have a prologue, or what must a prologue include?) is not itself a rule, but a preference.
The written word is limited in its ability to convey tone of voice. That is evident in the response below, because the author has read into my words something that didn’t exist when I typed them:
So the opinions here are negated, unnecessary & this is a silly discussion?
…Just because no one’s yet (to my knowledge) written a book about the prologue & laid down rules doesn’t mean some unspoken rules exist…I’d further guess a lot of publishing houses have very definite, articulated rules re: prologues, written for all editors to heed (& break when appropriate).
Preference or not, it’s good to know what the literary preference is, figure out why, & know when to or not to heed it.
By answering here, I’m trying to return to the subject & take the confrontational tone out. Please follow suit.
Well, that’s a head-scratcher. I was never off topic. Never said anyone’s opinion was negated or unnecessary, never said the discussion was silly. Confrontational tone? I can see how my questions might have seemed that way. I objected to imposing rules where none exist.
Nor, in my opinion, should such rules exist. There may be a basic story structure we all employ — beginning, middle, end, with an arc of rising action, climax, and falling action — but we all use that structure to serve our stories, not twist our stories to serve that structure.
Some tales are told inside out. Some are told backward. Some rely heavily on dialogue, some on action. Some are introspective, some spend very little time in the main character’s thoughts. Some have epilogues or prologues. Some use lines of poetry as chapter titles. Some only number their chapters. Whatever works. Whatever serves the story should be used.
I hate seeing young or rookie authors being hemmed in by storytelling “rules” that are imprisoning and arbitrary. One editor said she hates the word atop, and will strike it from every manuscript in which it appears. At a conference several years ago, the keynote speaker (a woman) said that women should not write battle scenes, because women are too soft to write with real grit. One writer likes to keep his descriptions to one sentence, and another likes to invite the reader into the scene by including an entire paragraph.
Different approaches, but certainly none of them following a rule authors can point to in a grammar book or a storytelling guide.
NaNoWriMo is over. I barely broke 30,000 words, so I didn’t win a web badge or a downloadable certificate, but progress was made on a dusty manuscript, too long neglected because its author is too easily distracted. With life tugging on my attention, I need to remember why I write. I need to remember to write.
Ever have those days when you forget to eat? Or go for hours before remembering that, oh, yeah, the reason you originally left the office was because you had to use the restroom?
Lately, that’s me and writing.
After about a year or so of acute manuscript neglect, I’ve lost my way with the plot, characters, dialogue, you name it. This past month, I floundered in a mire of old notes, some so oblique I no longer know what I intended.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been cranking out all sorts of small projects, just not working on any of the unfinished novels. The only complete manuscript has been sent out, and is most likely lying in a publisher’s slush pile, awaiting perusal by a reader who will decide whether or not it advances to the editor’s desk.
Despite uncertainty how to proceed, I haven’t grown bored with the novels. If the author’s uninterested, how much more the readers! No, it’s time to become reacquainted with the stories. If I can’t recall my original intentions for their progress, well, then, who says I can’t imagine something new?
When I asked a plot question of a fellow author whose romantic suspense novel I recently edited, she replied, “The story has to happen that way so (a later dramatic event) can happen.”
She refused to plug a plot hole by approaching her story from a new angle. I’ve been there a time or two: This must happen because that must happen.
Well, since I’m in charge, I can change my mind. I can adjust the plan, redirect the characters, change the venue of an action scene, put one character’s dialogue into a different character’s mouth. It’s all in my hands. I am the master of the universe! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!
The following short-short story was written October 10, 1995, in a journal I kept beside the bed in order to record thoughts and ideas, even dreams. I still keep a journal by the bed.
This little tale came just as I was falling asleep, and I haven’t done anything to it since, except for transcribing it to the computer. It came to mind this Thanksgiving as I considered all the things for which I’m grateful, and how sometimes blessings come in disguise.
One day, the young boy’s tutor tried one last time to show him the unimportance of physical beauty. The boy, handsome and groomed and well-deported, was nonetheless reluctant to follow his tutor’s request to enter the small, out-of-the-way room.
“Very well, then,” said the tutor, calmly closing the door and dropping the heavy key into his pocket. “We shall leave these treasures for another time, and immerse ourselves in a sea of mathematics.”
The handsome boy shook his curls and thrust out his chin. “No! Show me this room!”
The tutor’s brows arched. “Oh! I’m so sorry, Master. I thought you were not interested in this room.”
“I’d rather see this room than study more numbers!”
“Then mathematics, it is.” The tutor tucked a large volume securely under his arm and proceeded toward the library at a quick and deliberate pace. Reluctantly, the boy followed, scowling and far slower than his teacher.
Later, while laboring through a particularly intricate piece of poetry, he looked up suddenly and demanded, “What is in the room?”
The tutor shrugged and twirled his pen. “Oh, nothing much. Then, again,” he leaned across the desk, “it could be something very much indeed.”
He held up a mirror that lay beside a lamp. “Look into this.”
The boy did so, and smiled. It was a pleasing sight, he thought, adjusting his collar and smoothing back his curls.
“Is it you?” asked the tutor.
“Of course, it is!” replied the boy, astonished yet sneering. “What would you expect?”
The tutor smiled. “Oh, no! This is merely an image, a reflection of the real person.” He brought the key from his pocket. “Are you ready for the room?”
The boy kept himself in check by squeezing his hands together behind his back. The tutor seemed to take an eternity just to unlock the door. It finally opened quietly, falling back to reveal shelves full of old money caskets. Some were plain, some were carved; some were of wood, and some of gold or silver. All were covered with dust.
“Now,” said the tutor triumphantly, “choose the casket with the treasure.”
The boy’s eyes brightened, and he walked toward the shelves slowly, almost reverently. He reached out to open a beautifully embossed casket.
“No, young sir, do not touch. You must go by appearance alone.”
The boy moved down the row. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he saw the glitter of a jewel-encrusted lid. Eagerly, he reached for the casket, blew off the dust, and turned to his tutor.
“This is the one!” he crowed.
The tutor just smiled. “Open it.”
The boy threw back the lid, then exclaimed in disgust, “Why, there’s nothing here!”
“Of course not, dear boy,” said the tutor, unruffled. “Try again.”
This time, the boy chose a gold box. Nothing. He picked a silver casket. Nothing. Soon, all the most beautiful caskets were piled on the floor, open and empty. The boy turned to his tutor, eyes flashing.
“What kind of silly game are you playing?” he asked, his face flushed and teeth clenched. “There is no treasure here.”
“Oh, but you haven’t looked yet!”
“What?!” The boy gestured at the pile. “What is all this, then?”
The tutor smiled. “Do you recall a Scripture passage about a treasure hidden in earthen vessels? You would never expect water to come from a wine bottle, nor wine from a common pitcher, would you? I thought you liked a good battle of wits, lad. Try again.”
The boy looked around the shelves one more time. In a spirit of vengefulness, he grabbed the plainest, most scarred casket and flung it open. Inside were lumps of hard black wax.
“Here’s your treasure!” he mocked, thrusting the box at his teacher.
“Why, so it is!”
“You can’t be serious!”
“But I am!” The tutor reached for one of the black wax objects and broke off a piece. Suddenly, an emerald and a patch of gold glittered through.
“What does all this mean?” asked the bewildered boy, gesturing at the caskets surrounding his feet, and indicating the beautiful ring that now lay in the tutor’s palm.
“All that’s gold does not glitter,” the tutor broke open another wax ball to reveal a pearl and diamond brooch, “just as beauty does not indicate goodness.”
He looked the boy straight in the eyes. “So, tell me, did you see yourself, or merely an image, in the mirror?”
[The above story was written just now, for the first time, so it is quite rough. However, I had to write it down before it was forgotten.]
The writing is a bit pretentious and awkward — hey, it was scribbled down in a rush! — but I may clean it up someday, maybe compile an anthology of my short writing (essays, poems, stories). It’d be nice, too, if my photography skills had advanced enough that I could enhance the text with photos. Someday. Right now, I’m working on a novel-length manuscript, and then there’ll be another two novels (at least): one incomplete, one not yet begun. I’m not sure which is more difficult: a sprawling novel that allows me room to explore the characters and the setting, or a short story that forces me to keep the narrative pointed and contained. But that’s fodder for another blog post.
Today’s post is a mix of my thoughts on “point of view”, as well as a re-post of an entry from July 2008, revised slightly by its author, a writer and editor whose greatest peeve is laziness in the writing process. He lays out the basics of POV in a way that almost anyone can understand.
When I was younger, I used to write in the vein of the books I grew up reading, many of them being older works with third-person omniscient points of view. I didn’t know the technical term, nor did I even consider such a concept as POV, but once a junior high English teacher pointed it out to me, I realized that the right point of view can make a story come alive.
At first, however, I resisted. After all, third-person limited was so, well, limited. In the years since, however, it has become my default POV when composing a story. However, I have wandered into first-person on occasion, and have even played with tenses. Most books are written using past tense, but I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the immediacy of present tense.
Now, without further ado, I present a soap box and a lecture.
Remember that cliche about opinions: Everyone has one?
Here’s another old saying: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
After reading the opening pages of a novel that I freelance edited—twice—I’m wondering where my advice went. Down some literary drain, I guess.
POV (point of view) is one of the simplest things to get right, yet one of the most difficult concepts to communicate.
Definition: The story or scene is told from the point of view of one character in the scene—and ONLY from that person’s perspective—or it is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator (an objective imaginary individual who sees all and knows all, and communicates that to the reader).
Third-person limited POV: All that fancy term third-person limited means is this: The reader is not jerked from character to character in a mind-hopping exercise, jumping first into one character’s perspective and then into another character’s thoughts, but is led through the scene (or the entire story) by one character, knowing, sensing, and experiencing only what that character does, and only as that character encounters it.
There is no telegraphing—”If only Johnny knew that his greatest enemy lurked in the shadows”—and there is no “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” The reader knows only what his guide (the character) knows.
I do not have eyes in the back of my head. Therefore, I cannot describe to you any actions occurring behind me, unless I can see them reflected in a mirror, a window, etcetera, or hear the noises or smell the odors associated with those actions.
Makes sense, right?
Then why do writers insist on sloppy craft, and have a character describe the expression on his own face? He can tell you that he’s frowning, but unless he can see himself in a reflective surface, he cannot describe his own facial contortions.
He can’t tell you what he looks like from the back or the side–or, to tell the truth, from the front. He lives in his own skin; he needs an outside source, a mirror or another person, to help him visualize that skin from more angles than he can see with a tilt of his head.
Anyway, I’m reading this published novel, and there are POV switches all over the place in a single scene. After several pages of being in the hero’s perspective, we leap from his POV to his friends’, back to his, and then into the sight of his enemy, way up in an apartment window, an enemy the hero doesn’t even know is around, let alone watching.
Yes, I have a soapbox about POV. I’m a writer and an anal-retentive editor. POV switching is the mark of a lazy writer or an immature writer. Even the so-called greats wander into POV hell on occasion.
It didn’t use to be a problem for me as a reader; nowdays, though, if the writer hasn’t done the hard work and fixed the POV problem, I won’t finish the book. Yep, it’s that big a deal.
Written for a contest several years ago, this story was also partly the result of a dare among fellow writers: who could write the best romance? According the strangers and friends alike, my name sounds like that of a romance writer.
Unfortunately, I write more in the fantasy / adventure vein, and romance among characters is difficult for me to write well. This time, however, was one of those rare instances when the story wrote itself.
Enjoy! And if you don’t, well, an honest critique is always welcome. It’s how I learn and improve.
By Honor Bound
She does not kneel. She does not bow her head. She does not utter frightened allegiance. She does not beg. She could be one of the Northwomen, strong, proud.
Bearskin cloak broadening his shoulders, the chieftain strides forward.
She does not flinch.
He strikes her with the back of his hand.
Her head snaps sideways. She almost stumbles but she stands, chin up, eyes defiant. Touching the red trickle running from her mouth, she licks the blood from her fingertip.
Watching from a short distance, Soren feels a surge of lust.
He smiles at his father’s frustration. The chieftain towers over her, his fists clasping and unclasping as if clutching for stolen power; in silence, she robs Asgard of control.
Long waves of honey-brown hair hang down her back and over her shoulders, falling past her hips. Despite the bruise blackening her cheek and jaw, her skin glows golden. She is accustomed to the sun. Through the tight-fitting sleeves of her silken kirtle, her arms show the sculpting of one to whom physical labor is not unknown. She is not the usual prize.
At her feet lays the pierced, bloody body of her betrothed, a fine-clad stripling with more heart than skill. Soren feels little pity for him. Better to die in glory, sword in hand, than to die slowly in the shadow of a woman stronger than he.
The chieftain growls an order, and men bind her hands behind her. “Put her on a horse!”
“On whose horse, Asgard?” one warrior asks. “We lost no men this day.”
A wicked eyebrow cocked, the chieftain grins. “Choose.”
Fighting, immediate and brutal, breaks out around her. She will belong to the man with whom she rides, as his slave or his wife.
“Soren? Have you no desire for her?” Asgard asks. “A woman in need of breaking?”
Soren considers her calm face and uncowed posture. “Not broken. Won.”
Asgard grunts. “Then win her. And bring the blood.”
Soren dismounts his sturdy north-bred horse and strides through the fray. Fools! To fight but leave the prize unguarded.
He hoists her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, and takes her to the only building still standing in the ruined village—a hut clinging to the hillside like a goat clinging to a mountain.
The fighting fades. A hush follows. He knows the men watch.
Kicking shut the door, he stands her on her feet, cuts her bonds then crosses his arms, studying her in the dim light sifting through cracks in the hovel walls.
Hands at her sides, she again defies the expected, not rubbing her wrists where the rope chafed them, and breathes in quiet evenness beneath the fitted silk of the kirtle. Gray-green eyes, the color of the sea under a stormy sky, gaze at him with unnerving steadiness. A plain leather belt girds her hips, the tongue of it falling between her thighs, a suggestive circumstance that stirs him once more.
Won. Not forced.
“I am Soren.” He is irritated at the unsettled feeling in his stomach. “Asgard, my father, gives you to me.”
“My betrothed is dead”—her voice as detached from emotion as the sun from the earth— “I belong to no one, nor do I give myself to any man.”
“Pride will not save you.” Soren uncrosses his arms and steps forward. Her posture makes her appear taller than she is; the top of her head does not even meet his chin.
He fumbles to find his argument. “Those men will take what you will not give, and your pride will diminish with each taking until the woman you are now will not know the woman you will become.”
Her smile, small though it is, curves full lips into rosy sarcasm. “The barbarian speaks with gilded tongue. If more of your kind wielded such skill with words, your wives would come more willingly to bed.”
He speaks more mockery than truth. “We take them fierce, and breed strong sons.”
“Who yields the strength?” Sea eyes glitter with battle. “The forceful fathers, or the long-suffering mothers? The wind howls against the mountain, but gentle rain carves the stones.”
He reaches for her. She spits in his face.
Dragging a finger through the warm spittle running into his beard, he places it into his mouth with deliberate mockery.
Her lip curls.
“Highness,” he wipes his face with a battle-stained sleeve, “there is only one way out of this hut. Only one way my honor remains unchallenged. Only one way your pride remains untouched.”
Fear crosses her face for the first time since the body of her beloved was tossed at her feet. As if to calm her fluttering heart, she raises a hand to the low neck of her kirtle—and draws a knife.
He flings up his forearm, hears the blade drag across the leather vambrace then twists the knife from her grasp. Hand to her throat, he pushes her back against the center post of the hut.
Her nostrils flare, her eyes narrow. Her pulse is warm beneath his palm.
“Clever, highness, but now what will you use? Teeth? Claws? Kicks? Those have never prevented me before.”
The shadow of sorrow behind the contempt in her eyes, and the slenderness of her throat beneath his broad hand, checks his anger. He nods toward a stool in the center of the floor and releases her.
Back as straight as a ship’s mast, she sits, smoothing the kirtle over her knees, turning the tongue of the girdle so that it drapes at her side.
Tapping the knife against his leg, he leans against the crude stone chimney. “The coastal kings are known for their prim ways. Oh, they have their secret lovers, but they have their public queens. And great price is placed on the purity of those queens.”
He pauses, searching her face for understanding. There is only hatred.
“You are pure, else no marriage contract would have been sealed between your father and that of your beloved.”
“Beck is not—was not—my beloved.” Her hands clench on her lap. “He was more brother than lover. He was kind. Brave.” Grief does not overcome her. Lifting her chin, she looks up at him, devoid of tears. “No matter what you do to me, Beck will be avenged.”
The man who wins her will never truly be the conqueror. Yet desire flames in him. He must have her.
“My father requires proof your defenses are breached, highness. Either you give yourself willingly, and I present the blood to Asgard, or I take you by force, and still present the blood to Asgard.”
She seems not to hear, her eyes thoughtful where once they were angry. “How is it you speak so well? You could almost be a noble in my father’s court.”
“Osric and his court are dead.”
“I am aware of my loss.”
How can she sit there, so calm and controlled, while everyone she knew or loved lays dead in the ruined streets?
A wild horse, anger gallops through him. He reins it in, slowing and deepening each breath. Whether angry at her stillness or at what was stolen from her, he refuses to surmise. Such thoughts are not for warriors.
“My mother was, like you, the daughter of a coastal king. It is her speech you recognize.“
“Did your father love your mother?”
“He named her wife.” The tendons in his neck tighten. “You seek to turn the point, highness, but—“
“Why did he give you me?”
“Perhaps you remind him of her.”
“Then why not take me himself?”
“He has women enough.”
“Will you strike me as he did?”
Soren shoves the knife into his belt and yanks her up from the stool. “You are mine.” He bends until their faces are a breath apart. “If you shame me today, I will shame you every day hereafter.”
“Gone is the silver speech,” she murmurs. “Without it, bedding will be an empty thing. For us both.”
“If words are what you want, I’ve words aplenty.”
She tugs at his belt. His body responds, hot and urgent. He reaches for her other arm to draw her to him.
Steel taps his chin. She holds the knife to his throat.
Slowly, he releases her and steps backward.
“I care not for your honor or your shame.” She retreats, placing only a wall of air between them, for he stands before the door.
Fury wars with lust. He says through clenched teeth, “You will regret those words, highness, after my father’s men have had you. Many times.” He forces a smile. “Drop the blade. Take pleasure in the inevitable.”
“It is you who will regret.” Her knife does not waver. “If I do this thing, none of the coastal kings will ransom me.”
“No ransom will be asked.”
The knife tips in her slackening fingers.
“Even if Asgard sought treasure through ransom,” he draws his war-sword from its battered leather sheath, “what is your knife to this?”
He burns, wanting her to come willingly to him, but his persuasions are at an end.
“You are a harsh suitor, Soren Asgardson.” She turns the blade toward her breast.
A chill stabs him. No warrior contemplates self-murder, for the soul is then doomed to wander forever, a dark haunt without hope of peace.
He leaps forward, sword thudding to the floor as he reaches both hands for the knife. Its tip scrapes her skin before he wrests it from her. He flings it to the floor. It lands with a clatter, crosswise to the sword.
She stares at him in unspoken combat. Soren gives way first, unable to batter against the despair in the sea-colored eyes.
“This takes too much time.” His words are sharp. “My father’s men expect to hear your cries by now. Or see me return with you across my shoulder, tamed into submission. They already question my honor.”
“If I do what you ask, do you swear to be kind to me from this day onward?”
He stares at her. Kind?
“Will you protect me from all others, and treat me as you might one of your own women? With the dignity accorded their strength?”
He sees again the black bruise left by Asgard’s hand, feels emotion he cannot name.
“Will you call me by name?”
“You swear to all of it?”
Voice hoarse, he replies, “Yes, high—“
Her name on his lips both disturbs and pleases him. Some captives fight, some go limp. The latter he does not want, and the former are often too much trouble. But this one grants him a gift that is already his by right, and gives it so humbly he is undone.
His body clamors for satisfaction; his self craves her esteem. To have the admiration of a strong woman only adds to the honor of a man, for her strength girds his.
Kneeling, he grabs the knife and draws the blade across his upper arm, where his sleeve hides the wound, and lets blood drip onto a dirty blanket crumpled on the broken-down bed.
“This will be Asgard’s proof.” He keeps his gaze on the blanket.
Rowena kneels, taking the knife from him, the touch of her fingers sending lightning bolts along his skin. Slicing off a piece of her kirtle, she binds the cut and pulls down his sleeve to cover the bandage. Only then does he look at her.
Her eyes watching his, she slides the knife back into her bodice.
He can scarce draw breath.
Leaning forward, enveloping him in her honey-colored hair, she takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
The kiss soft, her lips softer, when she withdraws, he is lost.
After a long gaze-locked moment, she takes the bloodstained blanket. “Honor what you swore, Soren Asgardson”—she hands him the war-sword as if she is already a wife preparing her husband for battle—“and your bed will never be cold.”